It's no secret that major studio blockbusters can be stunted by the environment in which they are created. Big budgets mean that there are a lot of important people looking over shoulders and generating notes, making sure that their money isn't being improperly utilized, and it can have the end effect of manufacturing bland, safe features that are meant to appeal to everyone. Watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, however, it becomes extremely clear that writer/director Luc Besson was given the opportunity to make exactly the film he wanted. And while that doesn't automatically generate perfect results, it does let it be one of the most gonzo, bombastic, and beautiful sci-fi features we've seen in recent years.
Having been a life-long fan of the Valerian and Laureline comics on which it's based, Luc Besson has carried the new movie as a passion project for decades (with new context, his beloved 1997 feature The Fifth Element feels like it was a training session). You can tell that he was waiting until the time was perfect to move forward, and from an effects stand-point he absolutely nailed it. There are segments of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets that essentially transport you to a different world with each new scene, and each one is more stunning than the last, brought to life with a blend of spectacular digital and practical artistry. It not only enhances everything incredible about the film, including the larger themes and expansive world-building, but also does its part to strengthen weak spots,such as the narrative flow and the chemistry between the two leads.
Opening with a century-spanning montage that deserves to go down as an all-timer in the science-fiction genre, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets begins hundreds of years in the future, where we catch up with interstellar agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) as they execute a dangerous mission to disrupt a black market deal in a desert planet's virtual marketplace (what feels like one of 10,000 fantastic concepts that find their way into the film). After losing some friends and making a few new enemies, they find themselves on their way back to Alpha -- an enormous space station that grows larger and larger as new alien species discover it and dock their own installations. It's here that the two heroes are provided a new task from their commander (Clive Owen), sent to investigate a growing threat at the heart of Alpha -- but as they dig deeper, they discover that not everything is quite as it seems, and the stories they've been told about what's going on are not entirely true.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a film made up of big swings, and while a lot of them are great, it does take its toll on the storytelling, and some elements just don't work as they really should. A perfect example of this is the relationship between Valerian and Laureline, as Luc Besson does the cinematic equivalent of picking you up and dropping you into the deep end of the pool with the duo. The movie is impressively aggressive in getting across the former's love of the latter, and the latter's rejection of the former, which immediately puts the audience on an odd footing with them minutes after their introduction. Because there isn't really any context provided of their history together outside of being loyal partners, you're left throughout the movie never getting fully comfortable with them as a couple -- and the chemistry between Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne doesn't fully bridge the gap.
This same kind of messy ambition is also very present in Valerian's storytelling, as it finds itself trying to do so much in its second act that it winds up as a notable distraction from the primary narrative thrust. The movie never feels necessarily bloated, but it is certainly long (sporting a 137 minute runtime), and a significant part of that are the two consecutive rescue missions playing out in the middle. A part of you as a movie-goer is thankful, as both mini-plots allow the exploration of parts of Alpha that obviously you'd otherwise not see. The other part of you is acutely aware that this is what happens when a 50-page comic inspires a full-length feature. It's never great when you have to take a mental moment in the middle of a blockbuster to remember what the characters are trying to do, but in this case at least it's not devastating.
Of course, what you are truly meant to take away from Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a banquet of weird creativity and ridiculousness, and it's served up as an exciting blockbuster feast (best enjoyed, by the by, in 3D). Luc Besson had decades of comics from Valerian and Laureline creators Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières to adapt and employ, and both the creature and production design is legitimately special. Each new idea, from mind-expanding jellyfish, to consciousness that can travel the cosmos, is smile-inducing, and it's amazing to see the surprisingly small, heavily-disguised performances from talent like Ethan Hawke, Rihanna, Elizabeth Debicki and John Goodman -- which serve to make the universe feel wonderfully huge.
The summer isn't quite over, but Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is certainly the frontrunner to be named the spectacle of the summer, and while many franchises have disappointed, this is a movie that ends with you wanting to see much more from the universe it introduces. It's visually stunning, beautifully prescient in its humanist themes (alien-ist too, I suppose?), and while its reach doesn't match its grasp in some respects, you're still left respecting the hell out of the reach alone.